Get access

On the phenomenology of empathy in nursing: empathy or sympathy?


  • Tania Yegdich RPN DipN MN

    1. Clinical Nurse Consultant (Clinical Supervision), Mental Health Centre, Royal Brisbane Hospital, Herston and Private Practice, Brisbane, Australia
    Search for more papers by this author

Tania Yegdich E-mail:


On the phenomenology of empathy in nursing: empathy or sympathy?

In her recent phenomenological study Baillie attempted to describe the essential structure of empathy in surgical nursing. The study is important in that it utilizes a qualitative research method to investigate the phenomena of empathy, in contrast to previous quantitative studies. Although the phenomenological approach is clearly identified and ascribed to Husserl as the founder of the phenomenological movement, as well as utilizing the peculiarly Husserlian notion of bracketing, or epoché, in an attempt to describe the essence (another Husserlian objective) of the phenomenon under investigation (empathy), the research method does not reflect Husserl’s philosophy. The results reflect nurses’ subjective views on empathy, an exercise consistent with the nurse-phenomenologists quoted, who without exception, all believe Husserlian phenomenology concerns itself with subjective experience. However, in seeking the essence of phenomena unclouded by subjective opinion, Husserl stands in contrast to nursing interpretations of phenomenology’s famous catch phrase, ‘back to the things themselves’ (zu den Sachen selbst). Nurse-phenomenologists have misunderstood the intention of Husserlian phenomenology, and despite their opposition to traditional scientific methods, are still mired in the Kantian notion of science as a reality independent of mind. A theme consistent with the ‘things-in-themselves’, not the things themselves. As such, nursing’s use of the phenomenological method is questionable, and therefore the research findings on the phenomenon of empathy need to be reformulated. Interestingly, the phenomenon of empathy challenges us to question such underlying assumptions on how we view the world.